What Our New Passport Says About Us –And Hipsters

An explosive row has erupted over the new passport design unveiled this week. Of the nine eminent figures included in the “Creative United Kingdom” theme only one -the bard- is bearded. Hipsters were choking on their £3 bowls of killer cereal in exasperation. “We make up over half of the metropolitan creative industries” said one bewhiskered barista at Catatonic, a tap water bar. “This exclusion is an outrage and the design is a stubblewashing of our culture.”

Within hours of the launch #hairstory began to trend and a number of alternative figures from the straight cut fringes of British history were suggested such as writer D H Lawrence, 17th century naturalist Margaret Cavendish and all-round dandy Lytton Strachey. Many in the hipster community, who last year contributed significantly to the British economy (see ‘Bring on the Hipsters’, The Economist), are threatening to leave the country. Their campaign to boycott passports, however, should stem this mooted outflow.

Although the Passport Office was responsible for the design, ministers had ultimate sign-off. It has been rumoured that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn –twice winner of the Common’s beard of the year award- is to raise the issue at the next Prime Minister’s Questions. In a statement from his office the Opposition leader says he has yet to make up his mind whether he will apply for the new passport. At this point any tweaks to the existing design could result in a constitutional crisis and mass resignations.

Not everyone was up in arms over Passportgate. For some it’s just a design and anything beats the Horse & Hound style of previous passport illustrations. Most were blissfully unaware. The grand unveiling at the Globe was as well-attended as you’d expect a one man show starring Minister for Security James Brokenshire to be. In retrospect the Passport Office may not be ideally placed to lead on original design. The decision to include historical figures is always going to be contentious. They could have taken stock of the Bank of England’s agonised efforts to select replacements for their new generation of banknotes. Even if the Passport Office were to move from Southport to Shoreditch they would still face the issue of how exactly can you be entirely representative of a society that has never been so diverse. To include one is, inevitably, to exclude another.

What many didn’t remark on is that, at £72.50 (or 24 bowls of imported cereal), the UK passport ranks among the most expensive national IDs in the world. By contrast, the Spanish, German and French passports cost £18, £56 and £61 respectively. Rather than focussing on the content would it not make more sense to ask if we’re getting the aesthetic bang for our non-negotiable buck? True the designers appear to have thrown everything at the middle pages- from Victorian scrapbooks to the rejected imagery of a 2012 Great campaign. It’s a clutterful Britannia, haunted on every page by the awkward spectral presence of Shakespeare: uneasy lies the head that becomes a 3D watermark. If this is a symbol of national identity we can conclude that in 2015 Britain finds itself in a messy state, proud of individual parts but uncertain how exactly they all come together.

Beauty, as the design epithet goes, lies in simplicity. The Norwegian passport -costing £40, only slightly more expensive than a pint in an Oslo pub- is such an artefact. The most recent design by the cooler-than-thou studio Neue comes with clean, pastel coloured covers. You can imagine Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn continent hopping with these documents in hand. Inside they avoid the issue of exclusion by capturing the one thing that unites all Norwegian- a love of the outdoors. Rather than the cottage calendar sketches of the soon-to-be-outdated UK passport the minimalist, almost pop-arty fjords are the definition of sleek. Even Hipsters wouldn’t be able to fault this beardless masterwork.

Gerard Corvin

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